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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Rubio's notable silence on Syria

Sen. Marco Rubio


Sen. Marco Rubio



UPDATE: 6:07 p.m. Rubio responds (see posting here).

Since taking office in 2010, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has cultivated an image as a serious foreign policy thinker, and he has never missed a chance to weigh in on current affairs -- or to criticize President Barack Obama.

But as Obama readies military strikes against Syria and members of Congress increasingly say he needs their approval first, the Florida Republican has been notably silent –- a reticence reflecting the lack of easy answers and how Rubio’s hawkish outlook is being challenged by a rising libertarian strain in the GOP.

Rubio has not spoken about the building crisis, and several requests for comment have gone unanswered. Rubio has also not commented on the new turmoil in Egypt. His focus this summer has been almost exclusively on defunding Obamacare (and raising money for his PAC).

Rubio, 42, thrust himself into the foreign policy debate at the outset of his Senate career, grabbing a seat on the Foreign Relations and Intel committes. He gave policy speeches and interviews as presidential buzz grew around him.

Obama was a constant target. In a June interview with ABC News, Rubio sharply criticized the president for not acting on Syria sooner.

“If I was in charge of this issue, we never would have gotten to this point,” Rubio said. “We would have identified elements that we could have worked with, and we would have made sure that those elements, not the al Qaeda elements, were the best armed, best equipped and best trained. That being said, I think we need to continue to search for elements on the ground that we can work with, and we should try to do the best we can to increase their viability and their strength so that even when Assad falls, and we hope that he still will, they will be the ones on the ground with — with the best ability to kind of manage a future, hopefully democratic Syria, and peaceful Syria.”

Obama signaled this summer he would provide small arms to rebels in Syria but only after an uneasy reception from Congress. Florida Rep. Rich Nugent, a conservative Republican from the Tampa Bay area, said he feared weapons could one-day be used against his own sons.

"We want to make sure that we don't put our sons or daughters in any jeopardy particularly as it relates to arming those that we have no idea who they are," Nugent said during a defense budget hearing in late July.

On a broader level, the GOP is witnessing a tug-of-war between neoconservatives such as Rubio and a rising libertarian-minded wing that wants to pull back. The American public is war weary, too.

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in a statement Wednesday.

Paul, a possible 2016 presidential opponent of Rubio, said the U.S. should investigate the use of chemical weapons and have “an open debate in Congress over whether the situation warrants U.S. involvement.”

A clash between the Rubio and Paul viewpoints has been building over the last year.

“This idea that somehow the time has come for America to retreat from the world and ignore the issues that are around that us, we can’t do that,” Rubio said during a Faith & Freedom Coalition gathering this June in Washington. “There is no other light. There is no other nation. There is no other example.”

Adding some nuance, Rubio said: “I’m not advocating that Americans get engaged in every conflict on the planet and get involved in civil war. But there is nothing to replace us. I promise you it’s not the United Nations. It’s not China. It’s not the European Union.”

While Rubio remains silent, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson was unequivocal.

"There should be moral outrage over the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians in Syria," Nelson said Tuesday. "At this point I believe it appropriate to take military action with NATO and our regional allies. Inaction would only lead to greater suffering and instability in the region and would further embolden Assad."

[Last modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 6:17pm]


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